כא וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן מֶה-עָשָֹה לְךָ הָעָם הַזֶּה כִּי-הֵבֵאתָ עָלָיו חֲטָאָה גְדֹלָה: כב וַיֹּאמֶר אַהֲרֹן אַל-יִחַר אַף אֲדֹנִי אַתָּה יָדַעְתָּ אֶת-הָעָם כִּי בְרָע הוּא: כג וַיֹּאמְרוּ לִי עֲשֵֹה-לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ כִּי-זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה-הָיָה לוֹ: כד וָאֹמַר לָהֶם לְמִי זָהָב הִתְפָּרָקוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ-לִי וָאַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בָאֵשׁ וַיֵּצֵא הָעֵגֶל הַזֶּה: כה וַיַּרְא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הָעָם כִּי פָרֻעַ הוּא כִּי-פְרָעֹה אַהֲרֹן לְשִׁמְצָה בְּקָמֵיהֶם: כו וַיַּעֲמֹד מֹשֶׁה בְּשַׁעַר הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיֹּאמֶר מִי לַיהוָֹה אֵלָי וַיֵּאָסְפוּ אֵלָיו כָּל-בְּנֵי לֵוִי: כז וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם כֹּה-אָמַר יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְֹרָאֵל שִֹימוּ אִישׁ-חַרְבּוֹ עַל-יְרֵכוֹ עִבְרוּ וָשׁוּבוּ מִשַּׁעַר לָשַׁעַר בַּמַּחֲנֶה וְהִרְגוּ אִישׁ-אֶת-אָחִיו וְאִישׁ אֶת-רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת-קְרֹבוֹ:
There are is one verse here which is enigmatic:
כה וַיַּרְא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הָעָם כִּי פָרֻעַ הוּא כִּי-פְרָעֹה אַהֲרֹן לְשִׁמְצָה בְּקָמֵיהֶם:
Ex 32:25 When Moses saw that the people were running wild, for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies, 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, ‘Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me!’ And all the sons of Levi gathered around him.
This is the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) translation of the verse. Presumably the idea here is that the people were reveling wildly and sinfully and Moses therefore instructed his followers to kill all those who were "running wild". Under this translation, "derision of their enemies" is mentioned to illustrate how wildly drunk and light-headed they were: they were deriding their enemies in their lightheadedness.
According to Rashi the Hebrew root being used here pr‘ means "reveal/expose" and the translation of the verse is:
When Moses saw that (the disgrace of) the people had been exposed, for Aaron had exposed them, thus causing derision by their enemies, then Moses stood...
Both of these translations have their difficulties. In particular, according to Rashi, how does the Sin of the Golden Calf cause derision by the Israelite enemies, being that it’s purely a religious matter and it does not affect their enemies at all? Furthermore, what is the connection between this verse and the following verse? How does the Israelites’ expected derision by their enemies necessitate the killing of thousands of people? This is somewhat problematic according to the NRSV’s translation as well: why mention the derision of the Israelite enemies here altogether? It doesn’t seem to play any role in the event and it is not directly the cause for the civil war that follows. Moses is instructing his followers to massacre the calf worshippers because they are wild and sinful, not because they are deriding their enemies.
The very meaning of the Hebrew root pr‘ ought to be investigated better and we also should take into consideration "variants" in the text (different versions of the Hebrew biblical text) as well as similar sounding words in this chapter and elsewhere.
The NRSV seems to confuse pr‘ (peh, resh ayin) with pr’ (peh, resh, aleph). pr’ is known to mean "wild" like it says on Ismael gen 16:12 "he shall be a wild ass of a man" but pr‘ with an ayin never has such a direct meaning. Perhaps the NRSV considers the Masorete version to be a copyist error but I do not have any more information on this and so I will not give the NRSV translation any serious consideration.
Exodus 32:22 (translated by the NRSV): And Aaron said, ‘Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. "on evil" is the three letter word in Hebrew br‘ an extremely similar word to pr‘ since the letter beth and the letter peh sound alike and can be easily confused. The three letter word br‘ is also present earlier in the book of Exodus 5:19 The Israelite supervisors saw that they were in trouble when they were told, ‘You shall not lessen your daily number of bricks.’ These two instances of br‘ essentially convey the same meaning since bad/evil and trouble are closely related. But is there a relation between br‘ and pr‘? Note that in both 5:19 (br‘) and in 32:25 (pr‘), the Hebrew verb for seeing is used in connection with the word. In 5:19 the Israelite supervisors see themselves in trouble and in 32:25 Moses sees that the people are exposed/wild.
וַיִּרְאוּ שֹׁטְרֵי בְנֵי-יִשְֹרָאֵל אֹתָם בְּרָע
וַיַּרְא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הָעָם כִּי פָרֻעַ הוּא
It is therefore very tempting to suggest that pr‘ in 32:25 is a copyist’s error since the pr‘ root is found relatively infrequently in the bible and it just doesn’t seem to make much sense here. This hypothesis is further supported by the instance of the br‘ root earlier in this very chapter (32:22) when describing the very people Moses is describing here (32:25).
According to this hypothesis, the translation of 32:25 would be "when Moses saw that the people were bent on evil..." and we would still need to find some difficult translation for the remainder of the verse. I think that this makes sense as a possibility but it would require too much revision and there are better explanations which don’t require as much revision.
As you know, the LXX is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made in the second century BCE. Since the standardization of the MT (Masoretic text) did not even start until the fifth century or so, the LXX is therefore generally more reliable than the MT.
The LXX (translated into English) reads 32:25: When Moses saw that the people were scattered --for Aaron had scattered them so as to be a rejoicing to their enemies-- then Moses stood...
Obviously, the LXX translates pr‘ to "scatter", unlike Rashi’s translation or the NRSV, but there is another major difference here. "rejoicing" is a translation of the Hebrew root šmx expressed as "lesimcha" in this verse whereas according to the Masoretes the root šmº meaning "derision/defamation" is being used and it is pronounced "leshimtsah". The intent of the verse according to the LXX is not clear but it seems that it is talking about the punishment of exile for the sin of worshipping idols. The ultimate punishment of exile and scatter among the gentiles for the sin of idolatry is a major deuteronomistic theme. Moses looks into the future and sees that the nation will suffer exile and scatter among the nations for the current and future instances of idolatry and he is trying to preclude that by having the primordial sinners executed. Rephrasing the LXX according to this understanding, it would read like this:
32:25: When Moses saw that the people were (to be) scattered --for Aaron had (caused them to be) scattered, thus providing rejoice to their enemies-- then Moses stood...
This translation has its own problems. The root pr‘ occurs infrequently and is somewhat hard to define exactly but it never means "scatter" in the narrow sense. As we will see below, pr‘ almost always relates to disheveled hair or to the conduct of a person with disheveled hair. This just leaves me wondering whether the LXX translator had a different Hebrew word than we do and if so what that might be. (the root npº is what first comes to mind but that bears very little resemblance to pr‘). Besides, the verse seems to be talking about Moses "seeing" (that is analyzing) the current situation, not about something that Moses sees preveniently to be happening in the future. We don’t find the verb "seeing" apply to a prophetic vision by Moses, elsewhere in the HB.
This is why I have come up with my own translation of this verse based on the assumption that "leshimtsah" should be read "lesimchah", which I will explain below. But first I will discuss the background for the Golden Calf episode as detailed by the E author in this chapter and the meaning of the root pr‘ elsewhere in the Bible.
There are several tough questions about the Golden Calf episode.
If "all the sons of Levi" (Ex 32:26) heeded Moses’ call for arms against the idolators, then by killing their "brothers" and "relatives" (32:27) they would essentially be killing co-fighters and that doesn’t sound right. This would be the equivalent of the president of the United States of America calling on his troops to fight other troops within their very own division, which doesn’t make much sense, especially unprovoked as the case is here.
The similarities between the Golden Calf episode and the deeds of the first Israelite king Jeroboam are astounding. Jeroboam had just seceded from the southern Davidic kingdom and was looking to solidify his subjects’ loyalty to him. In an attempt to set up northern centers of worship so that northerners need not go to the Davidic Jerusalem to worship, he introduced the worship of bulls in his kingdom. He set up one shrine at Dan in the north and one at Bethel in the south, he placed golden bulls in them and said "Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt." (1kings 12:28) Some years later, Elijah punishes the idolatrous Israelites by taking them down to the river and having them slaughtered there (1kings 18:40) just like Moses did in our episode. Is all this coincidence or there’s something more to this?
What accounts for the two modes of executing the idolators? First, Moses takes the idolators to the river, grinds the golden statue and spreads its dust over the water and then has them drink the water and die. Then he calls the yahwists to arms and has all the idolators massacred.
The golden calf episode is an E document, first put to writing in the northern kingdom in the eighth century BCE by the yahwist party. At the time, the vast majority of the priesthood and did not belong to the yahwist party. In fact, Elijah, Elisha and Hosea are the only known Northern yahwists and the Deuteronomist pictures them as facing overwhelming opposition. Thus we have the idolatrous party, initiated by Jeroboam and his priests who are quite successful and confident in their success and then we have the yahwist party, small, isolated and on the brink of vanishing forever. But then something amazing happens. After Jehu becomes king, all the Baal priests are invited to a solemn assembly ("atsarah") to feast and worship the Baal in Samaria. Jehu makes sure that only Baal priests participate and he then instructs the eighty guards stationed outside the temple complex to come in and kill the Ball priests. In the midst of all the revelry and when they least expected it, the Baal priests were brutally murdered, thus inaugurating a new era for the yahwists. From then on, the yahwists grew stronger and stronger until the destruction of Israel when they migrated south and joined Judah.
In light of these historical events, I see the golden calf episode written by these northern priests shortly after Jehu’s extermination of the Baal priests as simply another "etiological episode". Etiological episodes are not necessarily true in every detail, but rather serve to explain the current socio-political and religious situation. As precedents to current realities they are likely to have occurred in one way or another. However, the details of such events do not reflect the truth. Rather, they are highly idealized to depict what past events are expected to be like, based on the current reality. The parallels between historical events and idealized etiologies are quite clear:
Elijah represents the yahwist flag-bearer after the Northern kingdom had been established. Moses represents the chief yahwist before the Israelites conquered Canaan and he is believed to have first introduced yahwism while the Israelites were slaves in Egypt (borrowing from Ikhnaton perhaps?)
Elijah is having trouble getting people to accept yahwism and almost gets himself killed in the process. Moses likewise is having a hard time introducing monotheism and almost gets himself killed ("a bit more and they will stone me").
Elijah goes 40 days without drinking and then receives a revelation from yahweh in Horeb. Moses goes 40 days without eating or drinking and then receives the tablets of the law at Horeb.
A "civil war" in the time of Jehu catches the idolators by surprise while in the midst a pagan feast. The yahwists prevail and the Baal worshippers are wiped out. A "civil war" in the time of Moses catches the idolators by surprise while attending a special feast for the bull-god and the yahwists among the priests prevail over the non-yahwist priests and massacre them.
Elisha has the idolatrous priests taken to the river Qishon and slaughtered there, after he demonstrates that only yahweh is the true God answering his call for fire and rain. Moses burns the golden calf, grinds it to dust, spreads it over the water (of a local river?) and gives to the idolators to drink and die (Ex 32:20).
I am sure that there are many more parallels but these are enough to make my point: the golden calf episode is a projection back in time and its details were designed to replicate the realities of later stages in Israelite history. It’s as if the yahwist is saying: I am not coming up with anything new; all this has already happened in the past thus providing an iron-clad precedent for the yahwist tradition!
Accordingly, "all the sons of Levi" is either a late revision by a copyist or an illogical attempt by the author to make yahwism seem universal among the priesthood even though he himself contradicts himself (perhaps unintentionally) moments later by saying that some Levite relatives were among the massacred and thus among the idol worshippers. If we search among the historical parallels to the golden calf episode, we never find any point in time when "all the priesthood" was yahwist (and if we did find such a case then there would be no need to massacre any idolators anyway for there cannot be a religious cult without a priesthood).
What really happened here is a civil war. Even though the Bible does not say that those massacred fought back, this is self understood. It is also likely that those people were backed militarily by Aharon in the ensuing battle, even though Aharon is said to be apologetic at one point, saying that "the calf emerged" (without his involvement). There was a religious conflict among the Levites (who, by the way, are likely to have been the only tribe to ever be in Egypt) as to what the proper way of worshipping the deity/deities is. Details of this ancient religious conflict are hard to reconstruct since the entire episode is etiological, that is, it serves to explain the current realities (eighth century BCE in the Northern Kingdom) and so it is by definition heavily slanted to conform with current realities. If the "bad guys" in the eyes of the 8th century BCE Yahwist party are idol worshippers (golden calves at Dan and Bethel) then the bad guys in Moses’ days are also depicted as idol worshippers. Aharon headed the idolatrous party and Moses headed the yahwist party.
Why was Aharon chosen as the villain and Moses as the hero? Simple! The Judahite priesthood descendent from ºadoq traced their ancestry to "Aharon" and only ºadoq descendants were allowed to serve in the Solomonic temple. Abiathar and his descendants who traced their ancestry to Eli the priest from Shiloh and Moses, were ousted from the Judahite priesthood by Solomon because they supported his rival Adonijah. Abiathar and his descendants, naturally ended up settling in the Northern Kingdom of Israel (since they couldn’t serve in the south) even though they didn’t quite get accepted into the Northern priesthood either. Aharon was therefore the perfect villainous character for the heretic priest in the Golden Calf saga and Moses was the perfect heroic character.
Now lets return to the question of the meaning of pr’ for a moment. As mentioned earlier, this root does not occur often in the earliest biblical documents.
מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הָעָם כִּי פָרֻעַ הוּא כִּי-פְרָעֹה אַהֲרֹן לְשִׁמְצָה בְּקָמֵיהֶם: כו וַיַּעֲמֹד מֹשֶׁה בְּשַׁעַר הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיֹּאמֶר
ex 32:25 When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies),
רָאשֵׁיכֶם אַל-תִּפְרָעוּ וּבִגְדֵיכֶם לֹא-תִפְרֹמוּ וְלֹא תָמֻתוּ וְעַל כָּל-הָעֵדָה יִקְצֹף
lev 10:6 And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, ‘Do not dishevel your hair, and do not tear your vestments,
אֶת-הַבְּגָדִים אֶת-רֹאשׁוֹ לֹא יִפְרָע וּבְגָדָיו לֹא יִפְרֹם
lev 21:10 ... shall not dishevel his hair, nor tear his vestments (sign of mourning)
אֶת-הָאִשָּׁה לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה וּפָרַע אֶת-רֹאשׁ הָאִשָּׁה
num 5:18 The priest shall set the woman before the Lord, dishevel the woman’s hair...
לַיהוָֹה קָדֹשׁ יִהְיֶה גַּדֵּל פֶּרַע שְֹעַר רֹאשׁוֹ:
num 6:5 they shall let the locks of the head grow long.
בָּאָה וְעָשִֹיתִי לֹא-אֶפְרַע וְלֹא-אָחוּס וְלֹא אֶנָּחֵם כִּדְרָכַיִךְ וְכַעֲלִילוֹתַיִךְ שְׁפָטוּךְ נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְהֶוִֹה:
ezek 24:14 I the Lord have spoken; the time is coming, I will act. I will not refrain, I will not spare, I will not relent.
וְרֹאשָׁם לֹא יְגַלֵּחוּ וּפֶרַע לֹא יְשַׁלֵּחוּ כָּסוֹם יִכְסְמוּ אֶת-רָאשֵׁיהֶם:
ezek 44:20 They shall not shave their heads or let their locks grow long; they shall only trim the hair of their heads.
יח בְּאֵין חָזוֹן יִפָּרַע עָם וְשֹׁמֵר תּוֹרָה אַשְׁרֵהוּ:
prov 29:18 Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint,but happy are those who keep the law.
ב בִּפְרֹעַ פְּרָעוֹת בְּיִשְֹרָאֵל בְּהִתְנַדֵּב עָם בָּרְכוּ יְהֹוָה:
judg 5:2 ‘When locks are long in Israel, when the people offer themselves willingly, bless the Lord!
מב אַשְׁכִּיר חִצַּי מִדָּם וְחַרְבִּי תֹּאכַל בָּשָֹר מִדַּם חָלָל וְשִׁבְיָה מֵרֹאשׁ פַּרְעוֹת אוֹיֵב:
deut 32:42 I will make my arrows drunk with blood,and my sword shall devour flesh—with the blood of the slain and the captives,from the long-haired enemy.
כה וַתִּפְרְעוּ כָל-עֲצָתִי וְתוֹכַחְתִּי לֹא אֲבִיתֶם:
prov 1:25 and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof,
יד בְּאֹרַח רְשָׁעִים אַל-תָּבֹא וְאַל-תְּאַשֵּׁר בְּדֶרֶךְ רָעִים: טו פְּרָעֵהוּ אַל-תַּעֲבָר-בּוֹ שְֹטֵה מֵעָלָיו וַעֲבוֹר:
prov 4:15 Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and
לב וְעַתָּה בָנִים שִׁמְעוּ-לִי וְאַשְׁרֵי דְּרָכַי יִשְׁמֹרוּ: לג שִׁמְעוּ מוּסָר וַחֲכָמוּ וְאַל-תִּפְרָעוּ:
prov 8:33 Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it.
Out of the aforementioned list of pr’ instances, most are post exilic. The following are ancient Hebrew and were most likely first written down before the 587 BCE exile:
- ex 32:25
- judg 5:2
- deut 32:42
Basically, disheveled hair can indicate one of two things: 1- an act of mourning. The person does not care about anything and has lost interest in living a normal productive life and is demonstrating this state of mind by the unrestrained disheveling of hair (as if there is nothing to worry about and there is no tomorrow), tearing of garments etc... 2 - an act of revelry. The person is showing unbridled lust (party like there’s no tomorrow). If it’s a girl, the act indicates "I am available and lustful, don’t be ashamed to come forward and grab me". This is why Rebecca took a scarf and covered herself once she married Isaac. The priest dishevels the hair of a woman who is suspected of adultery so that everyone sees that she is promiscuous and willing to sleep with anyone who comes along.
In Proverbs pr’ has the connotation of avoid/neglect/ignore but we don’t see such a connotation anywhere else in the bible. In all other cases pr’ as a noun denotes long disheveled locks of hair and as a verb means to expose and dishevel one’s hair. It seems that the use of pr’ in Proverbs as well as Ezekiel 24:14 is in the broader sense of the word, namely to act carelessly / neglect.
Now that we understand the meaning of pr’ in all the other instances we can return to the ancient document at hand. In all three cases pr’ is used in the broad sense of acting in an unbridled/careless way, which is personified by the person who dishevels his hair out of revelry. In Judges, it is talking about Israelites disheveling their long hair out of rejoice in defeating their enemy (Jabin, king of Hazor). In Deuteronomy, the "long-haired enemy" is mentioned because he is confident and unsuspecting and therefore vincible by a surprise attack. Likewise, in Exodus we are talking about Israelites who are partying unrestrainedly in front of their idol and thus easily vincible by their enemies through a surprise attack.
Moses is seeing that Aharon has allowed his people to be "disheveled", that is they have left their guard down in the course of their feasting and so he wisely decides that this is the time to strike at Aharon’s people, the idolators. Remember what we have concluded above: this is a civil war among the levites. Some levites are yahwists and follow Moses (Elijah, Elisha etc...) but most of them follow the idolatrous Aharon (the Baal priests). Under normal circumstances it would be hard for the yahwists to overcome the idolators but now that they are "disheveled" is the perfect time to strike and so he called his followers to arms.
The Masorete reading is ויַּרְא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הָעָם כִּי פָרֻעַ הוּא כִּי-פְרָעֹה אַהֲרֹן לְשִׁמְצָה בְּקָמֵיהֶם:
Our reading is ויַּרְא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הָעָם כִּי פְרָעָהוּ אַהֲרֹן לְשִׁמְחָה בְּקֻמֵיהֶם:
Or it could be ויַּרְא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הָעָם כִּי פָרֹעַ פְרָעָהוּ אַהֲרֹן לְשִׁמְחָה בְּקֻמֵיהֶם:
And the translation is When Moses saw that Aharon had disheveled the people upon their rise to rejoice, then Moses stood...
"rising to rejoice" is mentioned in an earlier verse (32:6) "the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel".
I prefer my first reading, according to which there is "duplicate phrase" copyist error, the duplicate phrase here being the words "ki pare’ghahu". Such kind of errors are found elsewhere in the bible (I don’t remember where offhand) whereby a scribe simply mistakenly writes down the same phrase twice. According to my alternative reading, the first mention of pr’ is a noun and is made to emphasize the verb. This kind of expression is extremely common in the bible and the intent here is that Moses saw that Aharon’s people were extremely disheveled. In fact, in Judges 5:2 the pr’ verb is written in such "emphasis duplicate" form.